Lecce, the “city of sun”, as legend has it, was founded during the war of Troy during the early 8th century B.C. by the Messapi, a mysterious people that arrived in Salento from the east. Discoveries through ongoing excavations are attributed to the Messapi, followed by Greeks and then Romans. Towns, castles, amphitheaters, statues, and mosaics abound.
It is core of the historical town where an excavated Roman amphitheater sits in the center. There are several espresso cafes with outdoor seating a a view of the Piazza, which is the core or Centro of the old city. The best espresso, and comfort, is Caffe Tentazioni, which has indoor and outdoor seating. Another well known one is Caffè Alvino.
The restoration of the city’s patron saint, Sant’Oronzo, is underway and will be placed on top of an existing column on a building one block away. It is currently at street level and can be viewed periodically.
The are many restaurants, cafes, books stores and local wine and foods on the several lovely streets that lead in and out of Centro. There is an English-speaking pharmacy on the Piazza.
Lecce Centro Storico
Vehicle traffic in centro storico is restricted to necessary service vehicles and residents. So exploring the many beautiful stone streets in this old city is a very pleasant experience in terms of architecture, stores and indoor and street side restaurants.
Lecce’s commercial history had the largest impact on what you see there now. It is a walled city with fortresses, an impenetrable castle, and a watch tower with a view of numerous other watch towers distributed on the shores of both the Adriatic (east) and Ionian (west) seas … each approximately 7 miles from Lecce. The shoreline beaches a short drive from Lecce and very beautiful.
In this relatively small centro storica, there are 75 palazzi, the vast majority of which were built by wealthy residents (vs. institutions) from fortunes originally made in the olive oil trade. The precious oil was used to light lamps and for other important purposes throughout the Mediterranean. It was a valuable commodity in the world. Gallipoli was the major export port point to other countries.
60 million olive trees in the Pugliese region have made the Salento region THE place to buy the finest olive oil. Despite a recent blight impacting the trees, there are still many productive farms. There are tours to visit and learn about the process of growing the olives and exporting the oil.
There are many group and private tours that are available in numerous languages. We have used a private guide who speaks English, German and Italian and offers knowledgeable and especially good tours.
Lecce is known as the “Lady of Baroque”. Since from the 17th Century on both civic and religious buildings were built in a unique architectural style influenced by the Spanish. Its local gold shaded calcareous stone enabled fine carving by stone cutters doing lace-like work.
Baroque masterpieces include the Piazza del Duomo and lovely churches including the Basilica di Santa Croce which is a triumph of baroque. If you only have time to see one outstanding example of baroque architecture, then the Basilica di Santa Croce is a standout. It outstrips all the other churches in Lecce by far, in beauty and gorgeous baroque architecture.
It has a stunning stone facade decorated with ornately carved animals, gargoyles, flora, and a large rose window.
To tour it and other churches interiors, tickets are sold at the ticket office in the Piazza Duomo. Tickets to multiple churches over a choice of days are available.
There are lovely parks and piazzas just a short walk from Centro. Most have fountains and places to sit under the trees and among the flowers. Built in 1548, the Triumphal Arch, known as the Naples gate since it stands in the piazza of the same name, was built in honor of the Emperor Charles V, who built the fortifications protecting the city of Lecce.
Outside the city center is Lecce’s historical cemetery which includes centuries of families who helped build and guide the city. It includes extraordinarily beautiful mausoleums with interesting designs and carvings. There is a pleasant park beside it with several preserved ruins. But the open air park can be hot during summer months.
Piazza Mazzini has a beautiful contemporary fountain. It’s a must see standout with fountain with spectacular lighting effects on the spouting water
Mazzini is a modern, upscale area immediately outside of centro which provides perspective and understanding about who and how people live outside centro. This is the principle fashionable shopping center with modern apartment buildings as well.
There is also a large daily outdoor marketplace selling everything – from clothing to produce.
There are hundreds of restaurants, hotels, Air B&Bs from high end modern and to period luxury and simple, neat and clean and affordable.
Lecce Main Tourist Streets
Via Vitorio Emanuele II from Piazza Sant’Oronzo to Porta Rudiae
Retrace your steps to Via Giuseppe Palmieri starts opposite Piazza del Duomo and ends at Porta Napoli. Recommend Caffè Paisiello on Palmieri 100 yards before Porta Napoli highly regarded by old time residents. Music inside was much too loud … maybe sit outside find tennis club immediately outside the porta for an unusual aspect of Lecce open to public, although not promoted to the public. Note the statue of the nude tennis player near the entrance. Food and soft drinks in the club house, with basic service at the few outdoor tables clay courts with bleachers on the side and behind the club house.
Very active Passeggiata in early evening core route is pedestrians only. Take Via Vittorio Emanuele II (starting at Piazza del Duomo), straight through Piazza Sant’Oronzo, then along Via Salvatore Trinchese (keep the Kasanova department store on your right), all the way to Piazza Mazzini.
The following restaurants are upscale – based on personal experience, not reviewed by other sources. All are walking distance from Piazza Sant’Oronzo:
Elegant interior. Intelligent, attentive, waiters. Well-prepared food with creative ingredients, and ‘old favorites’ wines from most regions in Italy, including Piedmont
Fresh seafood focus selecting specific whole fish is expensive but can feed two people comfortable and well-designed interio cozy room in back.
By-pass outdoor tables, and go inside restaurant at the end of the walkway on the side of outdoor seating area where it is comfortable, slightly modern, pleasant interior, vaulted ceilingslaid-back, tasteful, quiet jazz on music system bookcases and wines on walls. Moderately priced local food well done and good wait staff
NOTE: the bookstore beside and wine store across the street are also Liberrima entities and are worth visiting
Pescheria Con Cottura
Via dei Mocenigo, 23, 73100 Lecce LE – Seafood focus selecting specific whole fish will be expensive but can feeds two. Slightly less than luxury prices, modern interior.
Upscale, but slightly less than luxury price menu spans local, Mediterranean, and greater Italian cuisines. Gourmet preparations good restaurant to try unfamiliar dishes … waiter’s recommendations can be trusted; small connected rooms with vaulted ceilings – outdoor dining.